By Annie Grevers, Swimming World Staff Writer
The audience cracked up as Troy Mullaney decribed a tall, gangly, naive swimmer who had joined his high school team after watching an Ashton Kutcher movie, “The Guardian,” and thinking “it looked easy.”
The new guy was Jake Stoll, and the two became fast friends between drives to practice, school, and QuickTrip, and through constant duels in the pool. Stoll joined Mullaney in front of the crowd at last April’s Arizona Aquatic Sports Foundation fundraising dinner with the same light-hearted, comedic tone as his best bud.
Jake had been side-lined from the football team after suffering a concussion in his first few seconds on the field that season. “The Guardian” led him to a sport that would ultimately play guardian to the struggling teen…
He could not swim across the pool. A conspicuously smart kid, Jake began watching hours of YouTube videos to learn how the best swimmers in the world cut through water. He was reassured by their times, thinking he was within striking range of the Olympic greats.
Then he realized there was a significant difference between short course yards and long course meters— swimming was not as easy as it had looked.
Troy’s mom saw Jake improve at a dramatic rate and suggested that he join a year-round team. Jake joined Mesa Aquatics Club, where Paul Smith (owner and director at Mesa Aquatics Club) became a father figure to the “green” swimmer. After a summer of club swimming before his senior year in high school, Stoll had worked his 50 free down to a 21-low and his 100 to a 47-low.
“I knew I wasn’t all that great, but I thought ‘maybe I could go to college with this,’” Stoll recalled.
HARDSHIP INSPIRES A FOUNDATION
On Jake’s 16th birthday, his parents got into a fight. “They always fought,” he said. “But that night, things blew up. My father left.”
In the morning, Jake talked to his sister about the severity of the schism. “It’s pretty serious,” she assured her brother.
After the incident and the divorce, Jake remembers being “more upset about the abandonment than my parents splitting up.”
“He left the three of us burdened. Then, my mother lost her job. My sister, mother, and I went from a family home to a one-bedroom apartment. Between my 16th birthday and college, we moved six times.”
Money was tight. “Swimming is an extremely expensive sport— monthly fees plus meet fees. In high school, I was getting an envelope (with an invoice) every month. I just brushed it off. Then, that summer, right before college, I received a huge bill and thought I had to quit swimming.”
Eighteen-year-old Jake freaked out, knowing swimming was his ticket to college. “I owe all this money. I remember calling Paul, crying. He worked with me to find ways for me to keep swimming.”
Paul and Laura Smith had recently taken over ownership of the Mesa Aquatics Club.
Teammate (now Olympian) Breeja Larson, who is one of seven Larson daughters, felt the financial burden as well. “I was always terrified of being billed,” Larson said. “I just ignored the emails. Laura and Paul took me under their wing and said, ‘You know what, don’t worry about it. Keep doing what you’re doing, be a good example, help out where you can, and we’ll cover it.’ Jake was in that same boat.”
“Jake, along with Breeja Larson and a handful of other high school kids, were the inspiration for Laura and I to find a way and raise money to help kids/families out in the spring of 2010. We had made a commitment from day one to never turn away a kid willing to make the commitment to be in swimming!” Paul said.
The compassionate owners supported swimmers on their own at first, but they had not grasped the weight of their community’s needs.
“We had two new, state of the art, $10 million facilities on campuses where the vast majority of kids were in the school lunch program (Kino where Breeja went to Junior High was 90 percent and Skyline with percent) and so few kids could participate in year-round club swimming (and water polo, synchro and dive),” Paul added.
In 2012, the Smiths mulled over possibilities with some local Masters swimmers and “forged ahead with a partnership with the Arizona Community Foundation;” the parent organization of the newly-launched Arizona Aquatic Sports Foundation.
“To date, we have over 100 athletes/families such as Jake and Breeja,” Paul said. “Of those, we have helped I over a dozen go on to swim in college and we will have our first West Point grad this spring!”
Breeja ended up riding her talent to Texas A&M University, and Jake, to St. Cloud State.
“The opportunity that swimming has given us— to get a college degree?! We worked hard, but if our grades were mediocre and swimming wasn’t going to get us there, we didn’t know what would,” Larson said.
SHAKING THAT ATHLETE STOICISM
Jake cut ties with his father after a few hurtful occurrences during his time as a swimmer at St. Cloud State. First, his father decided watching his son at NCAAs was not worth his time, then he remarried and acquired a whole knew family without informing his kids or ex-wife. The last straw was when Jake’s father attempted to claim his son’s coveted (and desperately needed) tax refund. Jake did not like the person his father had become.
“After a family member deserts you, you think, ‘If I don’t swim well, he’s not going to like me,’ but (of course) Paul was never like that,” Jake said. “Without Paul, my mom, and a couple others, I could have easily fallen astray. I feel fortunate to have a mother who kept me in line, and to have had Paul, who helped me realize I could achieve whatever I set my mind to.”
Committed athletes do not like to show weakness. Asking for emotional help is taboo in the sports world.
“He had it rough, but he never let it show,” Larson said. “He left it outside the pool, and when he got to the pool, he was a completely different person, and let that take over his life where it could.”
“It has a lot to do with the impression athletes are under. Everyone has their deeper story that they don’t share. Everyone has their own reasoning for being the way they are,” Jake said. “I’m lighthearted and naturally pretty happy. I’m 80 percent very happy, but then there’s that 20 percent. Through swimming and therapy, I figured out a way to help cope. Letting people in and talking— getting over the ‘if people think I’m happy, then I’m happy.’ I didn’t want to be different, but I learned it’s OK to talk about.”
Jake Stoll graduated from St. Cloud State in 2014 and now works as the Director of Growth at AvidBrain, an online marketplace for tutoring that has seen wild success since it’s launch in February.